Sunday, May 26, 2013

What is enlightenment?

This is Part I of a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East on May 26.
You know how it’s said that the Native People in the northern climates – in my childhood we called them Eskimos – have 50 words for snow?  It’s very important to them to know the condition of the snow to make their plans for the day or the month, so they developed lots of descriptive words to note subtle differences.

For Buddhists, the word “enlightenment” is kind of like that. Enlightenment is the promise of the Buddhist path, and it has many synonyms – grace, basic goodness, awakening, buddhanature, ground of being, original mind. The Buddha didn’t call himself enlightened.

This is the account given by religious historian Huston Smith in his book “Buddhism:

Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him … asking what he was. “Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “Are you an angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?”

Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

His answer became his title, for this is what Buddha means. The Sanskrit root “budh” denotes both to wake up and to know. Buddha, then, means “The Enlightened One” or the “Awakened One.” While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking state of human life, one of their number roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dreamlike vagaries of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.

Let me ask you, did you wake up this morning? Obviously, because you’re here, sitting upright. 

Now let me ask this: Are you enlightened?

 Yeah, you are. 

“Nobody believes his or her life is perfect,” says Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless.”

Buddhism begins with a man. Not quite an ordinary man. A rather well-off man. But just a man – no divine parents, no divine interventions.  His parents, like all good parents, tried to shield him from the disturbing things in the world; they kept him on the grounds of their home, controlling the environment as much as possible. But one day he snuck out, with the help of one of his servants, and he saw sickness, old age, and death for the first time. He was disturbed by it and wanted to understand it. So he left his parents’ home and became a spiritual seeker. 

According to Joseph Campbell, the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment fits into the archetype of the hero myth – like Odysseus or Luke Skywalker. After an awakening to the conditions of the world he renounces the comforts of his princely home. He struggles to find answers in various spiritual disciplines, then sits down under a tree and vows to stay there until it all makes sense. In the fourth and final stage of the archetypal journey, he wakes up and sees the interconnectedness of all existence. 

And that’s where many hero myths end -- although Disney now plans to continue the Star Wars saga beyond Episode 6, which was originally Episode 3 before the prequels. Perhaps Buddhism today is the equivalent of Episode 2563, in which subsequent beings continue to aspire to the same realizations the Buddha had that night and still use his map to attain enlightenment in a world that seems to have little in common with the one he lived in.

It is said that the Buddha was reluctant to try to teach what he had discovered because it is experiential, not something easily reduced to words. He was asked to survey the world with his eye of wisdom and see that there were many beings who could benefit from his teachings. Out of deep compassion for their suffering, the Buddha went on to teach for 45 years before dying after eating a piece of bad meat.
 There are numerous versions of this story from different traditions, some very simple, some very elaborate. Most likely, none of them are precisely factual.

Here’s what is important:

Buddhism begins with a man. A human. And it ends with a human – who dies a human death. The Buddha set the example for his followers – upon attaining enlightenment, he stayed in this world and lived in this world – the same world -- in the same body with no super powers except the ability to see what is real.

For Buddhists, that hasn’t changed. Enlightenment isn’t a free pass to a new realm where all pain and suffering stops. It’s simply a new way to live in the world that we’re already in. And not only do we live in the same world, but we are the same people. For what the Buddha discovered when he became enlightened – in what Campbell calls 
the "Great Awakening" stage of the hero myth -- is the same realization the Dorothy, the archetypal heroine of "The Wizard of Oz," found at the end of her journey:  Everything she wanted, everything she had battled so hard to get, was right here -- picture Judy Garland in her blue gingham jumper touching her heart as she gazes into Auntie Em;s eyes -- it was right here, all along.
And it is in you.

Enlightenment is our true nature and our home, but the complexities of human life cause us to forget. That forgetting feels like exile, and we make elaborate structures of habit, conviction, and strategy to defend against its desolation. But this condition isn’t hopeless; it’s possible to dismantle those structures so we can return from an exile that was always illusory to a home that was always right under our feet.

Enlightenment is our true nature … but let me ask, do you feel enlightened right now? Have you had the feeling of being enlightened – of being awake, let’s say. I bet you have. In fact, I’m sure you have.
People go away for things called “enlightenment intensives,” where they engage in activities that are meant to put them in touch with their enlightened nature. You can spend thousands of dollars for a few days in a tent in the desert with a guru who guarantees you enlightenment. You can. But you don’t have to. Enlightenment is much more ordinary than that. It’s always with us – we’re constantly flickering in and out of contact with it. It gets obscured by concepts and constructs, social conventions and cultural conditioning that are like soap scum and fog on a mirror, blocking us from a clear view.

ChogyamTrungpa Rinpoche describes it as a state in which body and mind are synchronized. It’s the fusion of awareness and what it is aware of, the obliteration of the boundaries between perception, perceiver, and perceived.
Toni Packer describes it like this:

Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever.

Now, let’s meditate.

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